Hell or High Water [2016]

In some senses, the purer the genre format, the cleaner the basic construction of an artistic work, the more revealing it really is of the culture that it’s exploring. This is a very pure genre outing indeed, about a bank robbing spree in West Texas. You could perhaps draw a direct line to this film from Bonnie and Clyde [1967] to this film to chart how robbers are perceived and how their fates play out. Bonnie and Clyde is essentially counter-cultural, celebrating or critiquing characters who have a restless and motiveless malevolence about them. Their death in a hail of gunfire is a nihilistic commitment to fighting The Man right up until the end. In a sense they are killed by their naivety, their inability to understand the full extent of the law’s powers arrayed against them. Bonnie and Clyde may not be exactly a primal scream, but it’s powered by an impotent rage that can find no useful avenue or constructive solution to the problems that it sees in society. Yet, in some senses, those problems are imaginary, merely projections of problems that existed in the 1930s when the film is set, and by concluding as it does – as Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid does – the basic correctness of society is ultimately asserted. 

Hell or High Water is a film with a different perspective on society and whether it ultimately works. A pair of brothers travel around West Texas robbing banks – but only the cash draws, to make cleaning the money easier and keep the amounts of cash realistic to handle. They’re robbing branches of the bank which holds the reverse mortgage on the family ranch, which the younger brother wishes to see passed onto his sons. A reverse mortgage is nothing other than a way for banks to acquire property from the elderly at cut rates, because they can control the magnitude of the payments which slowly convert the property from a wholly-owned asset into the bank’s property. The residual value of the property can then effectively be leveraged into the bank’s possession unless the heirs can front the required money, in which case the reverse mortgage holder has effectively borrowed money from the next generation with the bank receiving the interest. The film allows several characters to express their horror at the way in which banks leverage their lending power to syphon money out of communities, but this is the only really specific example they show. The argument couldn’t be plainer that while the methods of the characters are indefensible, the motives are just. This is a Robin Hood tale on a micro scale.

Bonnie and Clyde and their ilk are typically high intensity films, with relatively fast-paced action with infrequent pauses. The interpersonal dynamics are those of conflict and melodrama. In films like High Sierra [1941] this takes the form of posturing and brinksmanship within the gang, while in The Town [2010] it is the barely-suppressed past which drives the conflicts, the web of allegiances and favours binding the long-term associates. Hell or High Water adopts a different tone and a different pace altogether, an almost lethargic dynamic exists within the pair of criminals and the pair of Texas Rangers who pursue them. The characters bicker and tease each other in a way that could not express their deep affection more clearly, a manly mask for deep emotional connections. The one time the brothers express their genuine affection, neither can look at the other, and they de-escalate their emotional connection as quickly as possible. Whereas most of this genre ramp up the tension from scene to scene, Hell or High Water finds a rhythm of an understated moment of activity followed by a landscape establishing shot.

I’m sure that movie posters will forever describe this as a “Thriller”, but I don’t think that’s true in the Hitchcockian sense. This is a far more contemplative film, looking at its characters far more than the genre formulation in which they are placed. This is a refreshing change of approach, but for it to be wholly convincing the characters need to be given real space to exist beyond the dimensions required by genre. This is a difficult task for characters who are so emotionally repressed and in a situation that is so procedurally dominated. Mississippi Grind, one of my favourite films from last year, managed this by layering its central characters in their own mythology. The stories they told about themselves were a pack of evasive lies that nevertheless allowed glimpses of reality and depth. Hell or High Water doesn’t probe its characters depths by not forcing them to make difficult choices and by not transplanting them into different narrative modes.

This is a solidly made film that falls short of being great because it allows itself to place its ideological point too front-and-centre and doesn’t probe its characters deeply enough.

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One Response to Hell or High Water [2016]

  1. Pingback: Best Picture Oscar: Hell or High Water [2016] | My One Contribution To The Internet

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